For one reason or another, off-roading never really appeared on my automotive radar –I've always held more fascination sports and racing cars and never really understood the appeal of a Jeep or a Land Rover. The closest thing to off-roading I ever got into was rally.
Well, that's all changed and now, so allow me to explain how this happened.
A few months ago, a friend from high school posted a picture of his Wrangler fresh from getting some sweet off-road upgrades, so naturally I reached out to him asking if I could tag along. Our schedules lined up on Memorial Day, so we met up for a day of dirt, mud, and freedom. It might have just been me, but the mud smelled just like apple pie and barbecue. Some tasty America.
Five of us met at the top of an innocuous parking lot in an industrial park where we could head down towards some trails. We had one guy run ahead (a duty we all shared throughout the day) since the Wrangler only seats four and set down a windy, narrow path towards the trails.
The first thing I learned is that off-roading is weird. I don't mean that it's weird in the same sense that me deciding to communicate exclusively by meowing is weird, but it feels incredibly disorienting to someone who hasn't done it before. When we traversed the first big dip, staring at the sky coming out the other side, I had to force my brain to recalibrate my understanding of what I thought was possible in a car.
The next thing I learned about off-roading is that it's slow. Again, I don't mean that in a negative way, but don't expect to be bombing through the woods at 40 MPH. The first decent sized obstacle we traversed was a large puddle. We couldn't just charge full steam ahead through it, we had to stop and check the depth of the water and if the surface was too rocky to get through.
If racing is all about fast reflexes and quick decision making, off-roading is the same thing in slo-mo. You have to plan your actions carefully and methodically, or else you're going to be in serious trouble.
We crossed the water without problem, though I was still not fully used to a car bouncing around wildly and water coming through the windows. One of my friends commented to our driver about how much less jarring the new setup felt than the stock. I can only imagine what that would have felt like to a neophyte like myself.
The car? Yes, let's talk about the car. Or is it a truck? Not sure – I'll just call it a Jeep. It's a 2011 Jeep Wrangler Sport with a 2.5" suspension lift, 34" mud terrain tires, and a front sway-bar disconnect. It's a refreshingly honest vehicle compared with other modern trucks/SUVs/crossovers that try to sell you some sort of machismo. Of course, that doesn't mean that fools don't buy Wranglers to look tough, never taking them off road, but the car itself is wonderfully old school. It even has windup windows! Simplify and lightness, right?
After playing around on the trails near the power lines, we ventured into the woods where we soon encountered our next obstacle – a much longer and deeper puddle. I personally tested the water's depth by nearly falling in it whilst trying to hike around it. It was at that moment that I realized two things; Chuck Taylors are terrible hiking shoes, and it's probably very obvious to my friends that I live in Manhattan. Our captain deems the water crossable and the Jeep makes it without a problem, which is good because I didn't have much inclination at that point to get it unstuck.
We ventured deeper into the woods, scouting out the trails ahead before we traversed them. While living in NYC might not have prepared me well in the footwear department, it has given me a pretty decent sense of direction, which came in handy as we got further away from our start point. Also, we totally didn't end up behind someone's backyard because that would be a completely absurd thing to happen. So it was a good thing that it didn't...
We headed back towards the power lines where we started, encountering an obstacle of our own creation. The Wrangler's massive tires created tracks too deep to go over when we powered out of a mud pit earlier in the day. We gathered big sticks and logs to fill in the tracks and packed mud over them, a trick my friend had learned off-roading in Maine. It was at this point I really regretted wearing Chuck Taylors.
Crossing the gigantic puddle coming back the other way didn't go as well as the first time. The Jeep got stuck halfway through and our captain had to rock it back and forth a few times before we were able to get free. This unfortunately claimed the first and only victim of the day: the front air dam. We pulled it off, stuck it in the trunk, and carried on.
It was smooth sailing from there on out, and we made it back to the top of the hill to survey our handiwork, splattered across the Wrangler's sides.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to drive, but I wasn't about to hammer on my friend's new vehicle and run the risk of breaking something. I was simply happy to be along for the ride.
(Editor's note: Chris is our editorial fellow, which is to say he's a college student who is paid near-VICE wages to be a glorified intern. At one point he'll learn that the worst thing anyone can say when you borrow his car is "no." — MH)
Off-roading forced me to slow down and enjoy the process, taking in every moment as it came. I wasn't focused on what I had to do next, but rather was completely in the moment enjoying every second – a perfect antidote to the sensory-overload experience that is living in a big city. There's a certain sense of accomplishment one gets navigating some tricky terrain, or you find yourself deeper into the woods than you previously thought possible.
I don't know that off-roading is something I'd invest a lot of my own money in over something like a vintage sports car, but it definitely makes me want a beater XJ Cherokee or Land Rover Discovery. All in all it was a great time, and if you've never been off-roading find a way to do so because it's a fantastic way to spend an afternoon.
Photo Credits: Chris Perkins/James Lefebvre/Robert Marcum